Lifeline From The Past To The Present

05.08.05   By Nico Macdonald

An interactive ‘Lifeline’ table is a key part of a new museum in London dedicated to the life of Sir Winston Churchill

If you are intrigued by the life of Sir Winston Churchill, voted Greatest Briton in the 2002 BBC poll, you can make an appointment to spend time in the Cambridge-based Churchill Archives Centre , or you could visit the recently opened Churchill Museum, part of the Cabinet War Rooms on the east edge of St James’s Park.

Central to the Museum is the “Lifeline”, a 17 metre-long interactive table displaying thousands of documents and texts, and images and film clips relating to the great man’s eventful life.

Just one metre shorter than a London bendy bus, the Lifeline chronicles Churchill’s ninety-year span, focusing on particular days, which are organised into months and years.

“We are faced with an immense amount of data” says Museum and Cabinet War Rooms director Phil Reed. “We wanted to give as much information about Churchill’s life and times as we can in a way that is interesting and engaging.”

The thousands of virtual artifacts are presented, using overhead data projectors, in manila-type “folders” which visitors can “open” by running their finger along touch-sensitive strips located at regular points on each side of the table.

Importance of Tables

The folders are labelled by month and year, with the outside of the year folders listing half a dozen key events contained within.

Commissioned by Reed, the Lifeline is the brainchild of exhibition and museum designers Casson Mann, which assembled a development team including interactive installation specialists Small Design Firm, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts; London-based graphic designer Nick Bell and sound designers the Liminal Sound Company.

Basing the Lifeline around a table was a significant early decision. “Tables are quite important to history” says Reed.

The Lifeline overcomes the limited access available to the delicate documents that make up the Churchill Archives, and in fact enhances them, for instance allowing documents and images to be enlarged by the viewer.

Despite being a state-of-the-art digital installation, the design of the Lifeline table and interface — and the museum as a whole — consciously evokes the periods in which Churchill was active.

“It is reminiscent of the kind of table they would have used in that room”, says David Small, of installation developers Small Design Firm.

Discussing the interface, Roger Mann of Casson Mann, notes that they “wanted it to have a kind of analogue feel, like rifling through someone’s papers.”

American Connections

“We wanted to make interactives that were more physical, so people from older age groups would be less intimidated by something digital”, explains Nick Bell, who developed the Lifeline’s interactive graphics.

“We weren’t embracing ‘digital-ness’ in the graphics. These are desktops, filing cabinets, and table surfaces.”

Reed confirms that a significant section of the audience is from older age groups. “And the American older end of the spectrum is a big part of it” he adds, alluding to the appeal of Churchill in the US, where his mother was born, and with which he had close political relations.

At the other end of the spectrum Reed notes that “we wanted to be more child-friendly, so a new generation would know about Churchill.” He hopes the Lifeline “is like nothing kids have ever seen before, which they can instantly relate to.”

Breaking the rigidity of the chronology, there are many surprises hidden in the Lifeline, randomly triggered when associated days are “pulled out.”

The Titanic sinking turns the whole table surface watery, accompanied by the sound of gurgling water. The atomic bombing of Japan sets off a deafening blast and obliterates the table surface.

Ease of Use

Franklin D Roosevelt and Churchill in 1941

Triggering a surprise makes visitors aware of each others’ presence, as they unintentionally interrupt their rifling.

The Lifeline is considered by the Museum to be a considerable success.

“People do spend hours there in some cases, even though they didn’t plan to” says Reed.

Though it was designed for people to come to the Lifeline from a section of the museum, perhaps to check a particular date, Reed says that “in reality people check their birthday or a friend’s birthday” and see what happened on that day. People do this “whether you are working class or an intellectual” he observes. “I don’t mind that!”

It also appears that people learn quickly how to use the Lifeline. Bell believes this is partly because “people are used to touch screens on Underground.”

Small notes that the horizontal form and the length of the table help visitors learn from one another, allowing people to glance at those opposite or adjacent to them to see how they are working it. “As soon as anyone gets it, everyone follows along,” he observes.

However, as with any design and technology project, the Lifeline needed some tweaks to aid this learning process. For months prior to opening, it was road tested on visitors, who completed feedback forms, to help the designers understand what didn’t work.

“What I found even more insightful was not what people said on the feedback forms but just watching people,” says Small.

Deeper Understanding

One of the observations was that visitors thought the images on the table, rather than the touch-sensitive strips either side, were the interactive elements. To address this Bell reports that “we added these big Dad’s Army arrows that reach across the table and point to the strips.”

The success of the Lifeline will soon be evaluated more extensively, with a view to making more tweaks.

Meanwhile Mann reflects that if the expected visitors, encompassing transient tourists and full-on researchers, “leave with even a little deeper understanding, you have succeeded.”

Cabinet War Rooms are open daily except 24, 25 and 26 December. 9:30am – 6.00pm

BBC London, PO Box 94.9, Marylebone High St. London W1A 6FL.

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